Walking into the Akademie der Künste, a key venue of the 9th Berlin Biennale, the café you encounter is more than just a café—but you wouldn’t know it at first glance. On one side there is a green juice bar serving up pricey smoothies and snacks; the seating area is furnished with fake plants and “upcycled” wooden tables made from shipping pallets.
MINT, as the café is called, is an art project by Mexico City-based artist Débora Delmar, who created her own artist-run corporation in 2009: Debora Delmar Corp. At the 2016 Biennale, which is curated by DIS arts collective and characterized by the markers and aesthetics of advanced capitalism—not to mention the tensions between sincerity and irony—she feeds us a faux health juice line as a comment on the intersections and politics of food consumption, wellness, and branding.
The critical commentary is as much in the details as it is in the juice blends. “The furniture appropriates first-world hipster aesthetics,” said Delmar, adding that “millennials look for this when searching to improve their healthy, commodified lifestyles.”
Paparazzi branding images for MINT
In MINT’s visual branding, one can’t help but notice the celebrities, all of whom have their heads cropped out of the images. They appear oversized, drinking green juice, plastered to the walls of the café. “I’m appropriating paparazzi pictures of celebrities and am leaving their heads out, so that the focus is on the product,” said the artist. “My use of celebrities is also a way to talk about liquidity and trends, as well as aspirations.”
Instead of using specific celebrities for a brand endorsement, the work speaks to the high-profile nature of their lifestyles more broadly. “Unfortunately, celebrities act as aspirational figures more than anyone else in society; they are idolized and often influence consumer trends,” said Delmar. “The paparazzi photographs here have been appropriated as the branding campaign for MINT, because the images perfectly advertise these aspirational lifestyles.”
Like the café itself, the brand name MINT is also more than its fresh, leafy green connotations. The name is doubly an acronym for Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey, four countries which are deemed the most promising developing economies according to asset management firm Fidelity Investments, and popularized by Goldman Sachs. The MINT nations are also part of the Next 11, countries designated as having the potential to become the world’s largest economies in the 21st century.
Installation view of MINT. Photos: Nadja Sayej
Juices are often made with fruit and vegetables from countries in the brand’s acronym—Mexico and Turkey in particular are some of the world’s largest exporters of fruit and produce. With a menu created by Berlin’s bJuice, MINT features items made with fresh, organic ingredients sourced both locally and internationally. There are seven different green juices, including “Proviant” lemonade with rhubarb, orange, and lemon-ginger (€2.90), the “bRadiant” juice with apple, cucumber, pineapple, and mint (€4.80) and the “bBiennale” juice with orange, ginger, pineapple, and wheatgrass (€5). Another juice contains jalapeño peppers brought from Guadalajara in Mexico.
“We have a range of salads, green rice, and couscous dishes as well as an all-green pizza,” said Delmar. “Not only will the juices and savory dishes be green, for dessert, there will be avocado ice cream and avocado brownies.”
Delmar advertises MINT’s products with health and lifestyle buzzwords, like “organic,” “cold-pressed,” and “gluten-free.” It’s unclear whether the trendy marketing language is all a part of the artwork’s performance.
Aspirational marketing and the juicing trend are fertile territory in contemporary art. Take Josh Kline's display case of rainbow-colored juices, Skittles, which debuted on New York's High Line in 2014 and has since been acquired by the MoMA. Kline's flavors—thankfully locked behind glass—were parodies, each representing a different contemporary lifestyle; "condo," for example, was a blend of coconut water, HDMI cable, infant formula, turmeric, yoga mat, and glass. With MINT, however, the audience is not a smirking onlooker, but a willing participant, implicated through the acts of paying for and literally ingesting the artwork.
The project is linked to the history and evolution of the juicing luxury health trend. “Juicing has become popular in first world countries thanks to its healthy connotations and the availability of vendors, home blenders, and juicers,” says Delmar.
She explains that the cost of juicing has become so expensive due to the rising costs of transporting exotic, fresh fruits. “This is despite the fact that in many of the producing countries juices cost a fraction of the price they are sold for elsewhere. For instance in Mexico they have a juice called ‘jugo verde’ (green juice) made with cactus, parsley, orange, and pineapple which is enjoyed by people from all walks of life,” she said. But the rising prices for juice and “healthy” food embodies more than material costs. The marketed lifestyle is what consumers are buying into.
“By creating the brand MINT and placing this luxury lifestyle choice inside the elite setting of the art world, the exclusivity of juicing becomes even more evident.”
Growing up in Mexico City, Delmar never saw something as simple as juice as a luxury item. In fact, she says, anyone and everyone can still buy fresh juice from local, independent stands as part of everyday living.
“Travelling around the world, I have been surprised to see the value of juice vary so wildly,” she said. “I feel this individual product represents succinctly the entire global consumerist system.”
With the art world elites spending real money to sip green juice in an artwork indistinguishable from a café, we seem to reach the surreal conclusion of this vertical economic chain. “I believe that living a healthy existence should be a global human right available to everyone,” said Delmar. “It should not be a luxury lifestyle.”
The café is a success—they've run out of juice on more than one occasion and since the opening, visitors to the Akademie der Künste have been enjoying the food and drink. The artist says one day she even saw a table reserved. But even in all its achievement—like so many artworks masquerading as something else in this Biennale—has MINT become part of the very system it critiques?
Debora Delmar’s MINT is open at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, daily from 10am to 6pm, excluding public holidays.
Nadja Sayej is an arts reporter based in Berlin and the founder of ArtStars*, check out her website at nadjasayej.com.
(All images: Debora Delmar Corp., MINT, 2016 Juice bar, furniture, prints. Courtesy Debora Delmar Corp.; Duve, Berlin. Commissioned and coproduced by Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art with the support of Patronato de Arte Contemporáneo A.C. Thanks to bJuice. Photos: Nadja Sayej)